Write Better: Seven Tips For Journalists

Concise, clear writing is one of the journalist’s best assets. No matter which platform you’re feeding — print, web, mobile or a technology to be named later — good writing separates the amateurs from the pros.

Here are seven ways to improve your word skills. And if these whet your appetite for more, try Roy Peter Clark’s excellent Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer or William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s classic The Elements of Style. Also helpful are the sections on writing mechanics and grammar from the Purdue Online Writing Lab.


1. Put commas in their place.

You can solve half of the world’s comma problems by remembering this rule:

Add a comma between two independent clauses linked by a coordinating conjunction — and, or, nor, but, yet, for. An independent clause has a subject and a verb. Don’t throw a comma before a coordinating conjunction unless what follows is an independent clause.

Right:
The thief stole a television and a laptop, but he left behind a bag with $1,000.

Wrong:
The thief stole a television and laptop, but left behind a bag with $1,000.


2. Conquer its/it’s confusion.

Not knowing the difference between its and it’s says “amateur” the way Chuck E. Cheese says “stimulation overload.”

For the record:

Its = possessive; “belongs to it”
It’s = “it is”

Right:
The team lost its game by one goal.

Right:
It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood.


3. Keep sentences short.

You’re not writing the great American novel. You’re conveying information to readers. Stick to one or two thoughts per sentence. If you have more than two commas in a sentence, try to split it.

Cringe-worthy:
The Burkett County legislature voted Monday to add six new police officers to the county force, adding staff at a time when the county budget is already 5 percent ahead of last year's spending, a level that some activists say will add to a deficit, which at $250 million is already on pace to bankrupt the county by 2012.

Better:
The Burkett County legislature voted Monday to add six new police officers to the county force. The move adds staff while the county budget is already 5 percent ahead of last year's. The level, some activists say, will add to a $250 million deficit that's already on pace to bankrupt the county by 2012.


4. Be active.

Active-verb construction — sentences in subject-verb-object order — carries more punch. Although it’s not imperative to write every sentence that way, avoiding passive sentence construction adds punch to your prose.

Limp:
The mayor was struck by the protester's sign.

Stronger:
A protester's sign hit the mayor.

Notice, also, the substitution of “hit” for “struck.” “Struck” is a word often found in police press releases; others are “perpetrator,” “brandished” and “apprehended.” You don’t use those in conversation. You say “man,” “waved” and “caught.” Write the way you speak — you’ll sound less phony.


5. Cut unnecessary words.

Remember eighth grade and that 500-word essay assignment? Remember how you padded your sentences to hit the goal? You can stop doing that now. Brevity makes for better prose. Remove redundant phrases and extra words.

Padded:
In order to improve the police station's lighting, the town hired a building contractor to install overhead skylights.

Tight:
To improve the police station's lighting, the town hired a contractor to install skylights.


6. Save your best words for last.

I’m a big fan of the 2-3-1 rule. In a sentence, the words with the most impact are last. Second in impact are the words at the front. Least are those in the middle. People tend to remember the last words most, so make sure what you say there counts.

Notice how rearranging these sentences adds to or subtracts from the impact (no pun intended):

Strong last words:
At 2:32 p.m., Johnson veered off the road and hit a 10-foot brick wall.

Weak last words:
Johnson veered off the road and hit a 10-foot brick wall at 2:32 p.m.


7. Write, rewrite, then rewrite again

All text benefits from revision. The best writers know this. They go back, erase, examine, cut, rearrange and craft sentences and paragraphs until they sing. You can do the same.

Have some tips of your own? Share them below.

One Response to “Write Better: Seven Tips For Journalists”

  1. Aaron says:

    Great advice. I would also recommend the tips at http://theslot.com

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